Mental Curtain

Science magazine recently published an article containing a series of charts depicting migration flows in the world from 1990 to 2010. Here's the most amazing of them, the biggest migration flows from country to country, 2005-2010 (click for a bigger picture with description; data sources and methodology are briefly described here)

There's a striking irregularity in the chart, which arrests attention as soon as you look at the picture. It's the former USSR.
While color lines cross the circle in every direction, illustrating mass movement of people between continents, the flows from the countries of the former Soviet Union are contained inside its former borders. The region looks excluded from the global circulation of people.
When you look at the flash charts representing people moving not between countries but between regions, it looks slightly different. People from the former Soviet Union move both outwards and inwards. But still, in comparison with other world regions those movements look almost negligible.
Why is it so? Why does the former USSR in this chart look self-contained and almost excluded from the rest of the world?

First explanation that comes to mind is that the region is relatively small and the population flows, respectively, are too thin to be represented in the charts. But it doesn't hold up to the facts. First, the former Soviet Union is populated with about 300 millions people. It's certainly less than East Asia or Africa, but virtually same as West Asia or North America (which in the charts includes only US and Canada) and some 8 times greater than Oceania. However, West Asia, North America and Oceania are by far more included in inter-regional population movement. Most amazingly, the flow to Europe from very rich North America is twice as big as the flow from the relatively poor former USSR.
Another possible explanation, that the people from the former USSR don't speak foreign languages, also doesn't hold. They most probably don't, but neither do the Americans settling in Germany, the Moroccans emigrating to Italy or the Filipinos moving to Saudi Arabia.
To explain such irregularity, we should find a similarly unique factor separating the former USSR from the rest of the world. Such factor can be found in the article Cold War Lives on in Minds of Deer.
A recent research found out that deer population in the forest on the border of the Czech Republic and Germany still, 25 years after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, won't cross the line. Once it was impossible - the border was guarded by barbed wire and machine guns. The deers learned that it's better not to go there and taught their children. And the pattern lives on.
Here, on the chart, we probably see the consequences of a similar development. The Soviet Union was the only country issuing exit permits for three generations. Nobody could leave the country without a special permit. And such a permit wasn't virtually impossible to obtain if you weren't a party boss, a famous athlete or a musician.
Citizens of other Communist countries also required exit visas, but not for 70 years, as in the USSR, but only for 40. When free travel was permitted again in Poland, Czech Republic or East Germany, people who remembered how it was before the Iron Curtain were still alive and relatively well. The tradition of living in the big world didn't die out there.
Not so in the former USSR. In 1991, when the exit visa requirement was lifted, the country was populated with the third continuous generation which knew foreign lands only from the state TV programs. There were almost no people alive who saw Rome or New York with their own eyes and could tell about it to their children and grand-children. Most people believed they would never travel abroad, and France seemed to them as distant as Mars.
The Communist Party wanted to create another new world, and it succeeded, in a certain sense. The USSR was a world in itself, almost perfectly isolated. The chart we see is probably the consequence of that isolation. And it concerns not only migration. Most Russians are rich enough to spend a week abroad at least once in 3 or 4 years. But according to recent surveys, less than 5% travel abroad each year and 79% have never been abroad at all (both news are in Russian). Barbed wire in the forests is long gone, but in the minds, it's probably still there.


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